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BEEF TIPS: THE BEST STEAKS IN (ANY) TOWN
In this age of managed indulgence, a good steak
dinner is an all too rare treat. Don't mess it up!
Steak isn't good for you, but it's still really good. In business it remains the dinner of champions. Because a steak dinner is, more than ever, a special event ("Judge Fleabottom threw out the charges! Let's have a steak!"), why settle for anything less than the most glorious cut of meat? In Brooklyn, New York, the folks at Peter Luger Steak House have been at the business of steak for over 100 years. And they know glorious meat. In fact, no matter what steakhouse you choose, you'll eat smarter if you apply Luger's exacting standards to the restaurants you encounter in your travels.

Not long after Peter Luger met his Maker in the early 1940s, the restaurant was purchased by Sol Forman, who owned a metalware factory across the street from the restaurant in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. He had always loved eating there, but he didn't know a thing about the restaurant business. So he did what came naturally to men of the age-he turned the meat shopping over to his wife, Marsha, the daughter of a butcher. Eighty-year-old Marsha is still a twice weekly visitor to the male-dominated world of Manhattan's meat packing district. And she is passing the cleaver to daughter Marilyn Spiera and granddaughter Jody Spiera Storch; at least one of them trolls the environs every day to gather the ten tons of meat that the restaurant uses each week. That makes them a true rarity; there are few steakhouses left-let alone ones that do Luger's volume-where every cut of meat is hand-selected by the proprietors. Storch, who started accompanying her grandmother to the meat district when she was 8 years old, provides a refreshing contrast to the gruff surroundings there. The butchers at distributor Gachot & Gachot visibly brighten when she walks in their front door, six months pregnant and wearing fuzzy snow boots, to visit their refrigerated center of sirloin. Donning a white butcher's coat, she gets down to business.

The best steakhouses serve only meat that has been graded "prime" by government inspectors. But it's the fat that helps make the flavor, so the meat packers don't even show the Luger women anything that isn't richly marbled. Still, Storch may reject the meat for any number of reasons-a purplish tinge (cooked meat tastes better if it's pink in the raw, she says), bruises or calluses (they make the meat tough), or overmarbling. Before she even shows up, foreman John Buono ferrets out just a few dozen hindquarters that have any hope of meeting Storch's standards. He lifts the sides of beef to show her their short loins. A bit of blood splashes her on the nose, and she bends down to examine the meat up close. She pokes and she prods in search of the perfect porterhouse, the only cut they serve at Luger's. She pauses. Then she peers into the "eye" of the short loin, a round, isolated circle of flesh near the T-bone. When she's satisfied, she brushes her branding hammer with ink and stamps her initials on the carcass with a resounding whack.

Once she's gone, the wholesalers lop the short loin, and it's trucked to the restaurant's Brooklyn basement, where it ages before it is cut into individual steaks. Most beef is wet-aged these days, which means that the meat is sealed off in plastic and sits in its own juices. Over the course of a few weeks, enzymes break down the animal's tough connective tissue and tenderize the steak-to-be. The Forman clan, by contrast, is fanatical about the merits of dry aging. They age the short loins bare on racks in a refrigerated room, controlling carefully for temperature and humidity (which is why it is tough to do this at home), and shut them up for an unspecified number of weeks (yes, it's a closely guarded family secret). And the difference in taste? Fix yourself side-by-side servings of mineral water and Evian. Both are high-quality beverages, by mineral water has an earthy complexity to it that spring water can't match. Dry-aged steak is similarly suited-you can (and should) eat it plain to savor its distinct flavor, whereas the wet-aged variety sometimes needs a sauce or seasoning to make your palate sing. At the restaurant they're so proud of the steak that the waiters flinch if you order the salmon or tend to downgrade the desired level of doneness for your steak.

Our medium-rare order came back raw in the center, which was just the way we should have ordered it in the first place. If you can do this only once in a while, don't mess it up; when steak is cooked too long, the juices evaporate and much of the flavor is lost, so order as rare as you can bear. Once you begin to devour it, the meal at Luger's is a decidedly communal experience. You don't get your own serving unless you're dining solo.

The options are steak for one, steak for two, steak for three, etc. (at $28.50 per serving), which makes it somewhat akin to dining in a (pricey) fondue parlor. They slice the steak up for you too, which is great if you're 6 years old but unfortunate if you've had a tough day and are longing to hack away with a serrated knife. You can't argue with quality, though, or with the century of wisdom that's gone into all of this. While we badgered various members of the Forman clan for recommendations outside New York City, they claimed to be unable to name a single spot for a handpicked, dry-aged thing of beauty. "When we leave town, we eat fish," Storch harrumphs. And indulge. A dieting editor of mine looked askance when I offered an invitation to Luger's; he pleaded vegetarianism. Then he agreed to come eat some salmon. When his stomach began to rumble as the subway churned over the Williamsburg Bridge, he grudgingly agreed to eat a bit of steak and take the rest home for his kids. Halfway through the meal, he thought he might save a bit for his dog. By the end, he had the T-bone on his plate and looked as if he would have picked it up and sucked the marrow if no one was looking. He need not worry.

Sol Forman ate at Luger's twice a day for decades. While he's cut back a bit in recent years, all that red meat clearly did him some good. At age 92 he still runs the show.